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Review Of Men Like That: A Southern Queer History

In the introduction of his book Men Like That: A Southern Queer History, John Howard states, "the regional bias specifically, the exclusion of rural people from much American lesbian and gay history is what I most hope to redress" (13-14) and such so, the lives of homosexuals in the South particularly Howard's hometown Mississippi is the main focus of Men Like That. While not denying the significance the bicoastal regions (New York, Cincinnati, Detroit, San Francisco) have had on the LGBT community in the country, Howard delves into the rural aspects of the topic to show that the rural landscape was not just an American closet for gay individuals as many urbanites would like to believe but in fact were "peopled with resourceful sexual beings" (64) who used the sites of home, church, and community not just for education and support but also for homosexual gratifications. Through the use of oral histories (testimonies of gay individuals who chose to live in the South) and by analyzing queer cultural products (i.e. Carl Corley's pulp fiction gay eroticas), Howard attempts to show to the readers the politics and the notions of homosexuality in the South from the 1890s to the early 1980s.

One of Howard's biggest arguments in the book is that locations and institutions generally regarded as preventative against homosexualism were in fact, on many occasions, places where homosexual activities flourished. To prove this argument, Howard mentions four sites of interactions generally regarded as headquarters of anti-homosexuality: the home, the church, the school, and the workplace. The family home is an especially strong example because while the parents' attitudes on homosexualism was easily perceived to be negative and scornful, inside the home, behind closed doors of their private rooms and situated on top of their private beds, the children could easily engage in homosexual activities with a friend, with an invited family member such as the uncle, or with themselves as they fantasized about gay Sex. Much of the sexual activities in these places were secretive and never talked about. Until the late 1970s and the rise of identity politics, homosexuality, even if discovered, was silently accommodated. As long as it did not threaten the established order, it was tolerated and in many cases, even forgiven. Thus, Howard argues that gay bars weren't the only places where homosex was common but right underneath the noses of those who disapproved of homosexualism: inside the home, amongst the choir tour members, inside school bathrooms, and even at workplaces. Howard stresses this notion of almost omnipresent homosexuality and while so doing, shows the silent reactions of those who knew but disapproved of these acts.

While his oral testimonies are not really successful in providing the link to the civil rights movement and homosexuality in the south, Howard continually strains to do so in this book. While acknowledging, "Though homosexuality and gender insubordination clearly weren't just white thing, gay political organizing for the most part was" (239), he brings up the connection of racism and heterosexism in the South over and over again. Of course, racism was a more dominant policy in the rural South, especially with the established system of segregation and unofficial condoning of lynchings and arrests. The South's system of white supremacy impacted everything, controlling not only education, restaurants, and marriage but even homosexual activities. Howard importantly notes, "While black and white boys often swam naked together at the local creek, Sex play across the color line was rare" (43). Thus, it was also not unusual that in the 60s, when gay rights movement became significant in gay bars, the sight of black men opposing heterosexism in alliance with white gay bars was very rare. To the blacks, the white gay bar was another institution that was dominated by whites and regulated by whites and this fact prevented the gay blacks from joining them, albeit the cause of the white gays pertained them as well.

More significantly, homosexualism had a humongous impact on the civil rights movement. Also, with the emergence of black radicalism, homosexualism was no longer an ignored and hushed subject, but an explicitly used tool in the political arena. Men Like That provides a fairly thorough examples of this when it tells of the conflict NAACP President Aaron Henry had with the Mississippi Supreme Court. While it is very probable that Aaron Henry engaged in homosex frequently, his homosexualism was targeted by white supremacists who wished to obstruct the progress of NAACP. Using sodomy laws against him, the white Southerners were successful in sentencing Henry to six months in prison. However, because of his importance to the black community and Mississippi's black constituents, the charges of sodomy was unsuccessful '" unlike the cases of Billy Higgs '" in driving Henry out of Mississippi. The case of Aaron Henry though proves Howard right when he states that sodomy laws were political tools used against those who pushed for racial equality, whether they were black activists or white sympathizers. Simply put, going against the established order of the white South meant being labeled as a queer and that identity had severe and harmful implications to the accused.

Howard devotes a good amount of pages on how the connection of racial equality and sexual deviance were strong in the political arena, but while analyzing the causes and the consequences of being labeled as a queer, Howard also goes into detail about how one can be labeled. After all, homosexual activities between the youths were generally tolerated in the South. It was when those norms became to be broken that one began to be labeled as a sexual deviant. For example, if a boy grew up to be an adult and still engaged in sexual activities with other men, he was no longer experimenting but sinning in the eyes of God. Specifically, though, being labeled as queer meant containing feminine qualities or characteristics out of the gender norms. Placed in an era and in a location where schools '" even black schools '" taught different courses for males and females, to be girlish or passive and not masculine or active was to be known as queer to everyone else. In regards to Sex, Howard writes, "To be too willing, to be too often penetrated, to be further feminized by dressing in a drag, meant a greater likelihood of being labeled a queer" (59).

Men Like That, of course, analyzes more than these three topics of the unsuspected sites for sexual encounters, intersection of racism and sodomy laws of the South, and the process of being labeled a queer, but I believe that these three are the most important topics discussed in the book and these three are the ones which Howard is most successful at explaining. While it is interesting to learn about the ideological battles between the Metropolitan Community Church and the Moral Majority (describing the intersections of religion and politics), and while it is more fascinating to read about his summaries and interpretations of Carl Corley's pornographic novels (introducing to the readers another kind of discourse), it is in these three areas that Howard truly describes the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality regarding the queer men in the South from 1890s to 1970s. His incorporations of oral testimonies are not as effective in addressing these issues, but they provide a relief to the tired eyes who read too much type of these analytical discourses and is fairly successful in engaging the readers to the topic at hand. Personally, Howard could have provided better link between gay rights and the civil rights movement since he often digresses into exclusive discussion about black rights, and Howard could have provided more concise account of Southern queer history (the examinations of Carl Corley's writings and the last chapter on public scandals was overtly written) but nonetheless, Howard has definitely achieved in redressing the regional bias in the American gay and lesbian history.

*QUOTATIONS AND NOTES -"an East Coast-West Coast phenomenon, the bicoastal bias prevalent in many modes of cultural function is in this case now a simple matter of mass: recent community studies examine lesbian or gay life in Atlanta, Birmingham, Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Louisville, Memphis, and New Orleans. Where many are gathered there is the historian" (12) -gays are good oral historians -"While these various factors overlap and figure prominently in this work, the regional bias'"specifically, the exclusion of rural people from much American lesbian and gay history'"is what I most hope to redress" (13-14) -"Power differentials structured by race are shown to prescribe and proscribe particular homosexualities and transgender sexualities" (17) -"Homosex between boys was tolerated, expected even. To continue in homosexual activity as a teen or young adult, however, was more problematic'"as was intergenerational interaction -- It was during MacArthur's childhood that popular media increasingly equated adult male homosexuals with child molesters. Fostered by cultural anxieties over youth and Dating, automobiles and lack of parental control, such stereotypes followed on the heels of changes in age-of-consent laws affecting young women" (19) -"Gender, according to theorist Judith Butler, is akin to a performance. It is the set of predominant societal expectations around Sex, such as the so-called masculine and feminine behaviors, that are scripted, that we rehearse, that we inculcate through constant repetition. Boys do this; girls do that. gender, therefore, can be considered more malleable than sex" (24) -Travestitism was more explicitly connected to performance or stage and was labeled to actresses without any repercussions to their reputations. -"To believe that homoerotic desire is ever present is not to believe that such desire remains fixed or culture-independent over time. social constructionism contributes most to the history of sexuality, as Eve Sedgwick describes it by 'radically defamiliarizing and denaturalizing not only the past and distant, but the present" (29) -"Pete Daniel has written, despite a trademark xenophobia and propensity to violence, 'Southerners often accepted (or forgave) almost any eccentricity so long as it posed no threat to the established order'" (32) -"Homosexual men in the United States were hardly the sick, self-absorbed psychotic perverts suggested by most mid-century popular media. Likewise, men like that in Mississippi, though often deeply conflicted, were hardly the ignorant, un-self-possessed hayseeds assumed by some late-twentieth-century-American urbanites. Quite the contrary, they were savvy in their methods, skilled in their machinations. Experiencing desire, they pondered the best means for its expression. They wrote their desire and they spoke it. They sheltered their desire; they sometimes used its power to silence others. For individuals in rural spaces'"connected to other through home, church, and school; work, consumption, and leisure'"desire pervasively structured the experience of everyday life. within complex systems of race and class, gender and sexuality, queer Mississippians explored their desires in relationship to landscape, ready to locate the critical where of sex" (33) -"If Mississippi was a contentious, near-mythical place, it was because of the outrageous extent of race, class, and gender oppression (and subtle fragmentations within race, class, and gender groups). Virulent racism and a thinly veiled misogyny supported much of the fabric of a once-agrarian, increasingly industrial, capitalist economic structure. A minute portion of citizens lived well at the expense of others" (40) -"'God, church, home, family, community.' It was in these very sites'"physical and conceptual'"that queer notions, queer individuals, and queer resistances were to be found" (40) -"While black and white boys often swam naked together at the local creek, Sex play across the color line was rare" (43) -"Generally, cross-dressing was tolerated as a childhood game; a transgender identity was verboten" (45) -"The family home in Mississippi was a complicated site of multiple sexual meanings and practices. At home, young men could learn to loathe their sexual desires; they could also find ways to act on their desires there. they could have sex with other young men in and around the house; they could masturbate there while fantasizing about boys and men. as Adults, they could have homosexual liaisons there and elsewhere, while constructing a normative home life with a wife and children. Some men remodeled the standard Mississippi domicile, building a family around a same-sex partner and, at times, one or more relatives and friends" (47) -"Up until the 1960s, white Protestants in Mississippi found little hypocrisy in their piety and white supremacy. Their churches, like their schools and neighborhoods, were strictly racially segregated. In fact, the churches were more exclusionary than commercial establishments. Whereas stores and movie theaters accommodated whites along with blacks'"who were restricted to certain spaces and treated to second-class service'"Sunday morning from eleven to non remained, as the saying went, the most segregated hour of the week" (49) -Church was not only the place for education and worship but also a space for sexual encounters. Even though being caught having sex in church would have negative consequences, many men took the risk, especially since church was only operating on its service days which were Sundays and Wednesdays. With big events like "lock-ins" where church members were locked inside for a day for a spiritual renewal, more Homosex opportunities were opened up. Sexual occurrences were especially frequent in choir sections, and more so when the choir went on tours. -Schools even after Brown v. Board of Education remained racially segregated. But the black school and the white school had one thing in common and that was gender segregations within their schools where boys were required to take certain courses and girls required to take other certain courses (i.e. homemaking, teaching, etc) -"To be too willing, to be too often penetrated, to be further feminized by dressing in a drag, meant a greater likelihood of being labeled a queer" (59) -"To reach gay self-actualization, the closet must be overcome. In the historical collective coming-out narrative '" the theoretical model on which American lesbian and gay history rests '" the rural landscape functions as an analogous space. The countryside must be left behind to reach gay culture and community formation in the cities. Thus, the South '"rural space generally '" functions as gay America's closet" (63) -"The rural landscape was anything but empty, devoid of sexuality. Rather, it was peopled with resourceful sexual beings. The three key institutions of community life '" the school, the home, and the church '" harbored diverse sexual activities. And, they housed workable spaces for sexual encounters. These places were never inherently adverse to Homosex; rather, they often fostered Homosex" (64) -college: more sexual awareness and more forgiveness in sexual acts within the people who did it and within the students who knew of it. Teacher-student relations were rare and if they did occur, they did outside the classroom and within one-on-one relationship. From the 70's and on though, with the rise of identity politics, suspected homosexuals were rounded up and often expelled from school -traits of gay movements from here to there and there to here: (1) constant (2)multi-directional (3) enabled by multiple means of conveyance (4) both large-scale (transforming society) or small-scale (5) encompassed institutions as well as individuals (6) delimited by race, class, and gender, in keeping with mainstream values and activities -Gay bars were the community for gays to escape. Though it had a confirmative normative rules of its own, a gay bar was a place of liberation for homosexuals. Just in case they got caught, though, they usually had a watch-out and if a police officer was to enter, they would change the light to blue as a signal so everyone would change dance positions and gays would be together with lesbians to portray a heterosexual dance scene -"Few wanted to be publicly identified as gay. As one government official stated in 1986, 'Accusing someone of being these days is being accused of being a leper" (104) -"Urban gay culture produced its own biases and exclusions. Though often gay communities readily welcomed and freely incorporated country boys fresh off the bus, other rural visitors were repelled by urban provincialism'"the snide, condescending rebuffs. Where a youthful masculinity was prized, ageism and transphobia resulted" (109) And this was especially true to gays who valued monogamy and didn't like one-night stands or casual Sex. -"Out-migrants benefited not only from the material advantages of life in the city'"the greater economic opportunities and varied social institutions. They also cultivated an intrinsic satisfaction, a sense that personal values and beliefs were better served by metropolitan living. For Mississippians who chosee to remain, the attitudes of the dominant culture invariably shaped the range of queer possibilities" (121) -"Men like that often desired men who liked'"but were not like'"that" (122) -"The sharply drawn perimeters of normalcy created its opposite, the grotesque. If some people must be normal, then some must be different from normal, or freaks. In reality, everyone is a freak because no human can cram her/himself into the narrow space that is the state of normalcy. But all have to pretend that they fit, and those closet freaks choose the most vulnerable among them to punish for their own secret alienation, to bear the burden of strangeness" '"Mab Segrest (127) -John Murrett case. Murrett was found dead in a hotel, beaten and gagged and it turned out that gagging, not the wounds was what killed him. The murder was traced to two military servicemen who had visited Mississippi that day July 23, 1955. The murderers' defending lawyer tried to make a case of "justified homicide" in which the murderers acted that way because they were being hit on by the homosexual Murrett. The prosecutor's efforts failed in the end and the jury and later Supreme Court found them guilty, especially with the evidence that the two men had taken Murrett's watch. So this case proved that while white lynchers were often acquitted in court, the police and the legal system were often sympathetic to white homosexual men. -"Around deviant sexuality, a quiet accommodation was the norm -- For their part in the social compact, queer Mississippians maintained low profiles. In day-to-day life they went about their routines, as did others. They simply avoided discussions of their sexual activities and fantasies'"again, as did others. Even as interracial heterosexual interactions, real or alleged, ruled or retrospectively justified the most heinous mob violence in the state, same-sex same-race intercourse yielded comparatively little open hostility" (142) Well, that is, before the 60s and the Civil Rights Movement. -"When Civil Rights leaders evinced propensities toward queer sex, their enemies were never far behind, ready to capitalize on any misshape" (158) This was especially true for individuals like Bill Higgs, whom the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission targeted as a homosexual individual who hired poor drag queens for sexual desires. Higgs, after lots of court meddling and whatnot, was later driven away from Mississippi. Same thing happened to the NAACP president Aaron Henry, but he was not driven away and only suffered 6 months in jail because his presence was so vital and necessary to the black community in Missisippi. -"Investigations also fretted over male sexual deviants and 'strong females' in the movement. Though homosexuality and gender insubordination were not among their primary targets, they relished the utility of such phenomena as tools of scandal" (161) -"As a cumulative effect of the 1961 freedom rides, the 1962 Henry arrest, the 1963 Higgs arrest, and the 1964 freedom summer movement, deviant sexuality loomed ever larger as a menace to the state. Queer Mississippians who once quietly had been accommodated within local systems of discretion, indirection, and complacency, no longer seemed positioned within the front ranks of civil rights activism. Among law enforcers, lassez-faire sensibilities gave way to explicit contempt for homosexuality and gender nonconformity. No longer would police assertively combat violence against homosexuals, as they had done in the John Murrett case of 1955. Instead, they carried out their own violent actions against the sexually marginal in Mississippi" (166) -Ode to Billy Joe started as a song by Bobbie Gentry. It was a song about the character Billy Joe McAllister who, after confessing his love to the girl he was to marry, commits suicide by jumping off the bride. This song was debated among its many audiences and became a top hit within a few weeks. The song's fans wondered why Billy Joe committed suicide and more so, wondered what he threw off the bridge. A decade later, the movie based on the song was made and answered those questions: he threw a ring off the bridge, being dismayed at discovering his homosexuality and at realizing how his sexual identity wouldn't be accepted by his local community. Thus, he jumped off the bride and killed himself. The film was significant because not only did it bring the issue of homosexuality out to public discourse but also implied how homosexuality could be among anyone in Mississippi and not just outsiders in San Francisco or New York. Another important aspect of this song and this movie is that this was what mostly started the homosexual mythology of suicide of homicide, the notion that those who are gay were doomed to be killed by society (Brokeback Mountain) or by themselves. -"In Mississippi during the 1960s and 1970s, everyday queer resistances included subversive readings and retellings of media depictions and public pronouncements. As Ode to Billy Joe demonstrated, when represented by others to mass audiences, queer Mississippians sometimes appeared doomed, tied to a mythology that perpetuated notions of perversity, helplessness, and despair. Yet queer Mississippians, embedded in local community and family institutions, clung to insurgent reconceptions of normative models and practices. Resilience marked queer struggles; endurance characterized queer lives" (188) -Carl Corley wrote gay erotica on pulp fiction format. Even after publishing all his works, he has completely failed in fame since it is so difficult to actually find his works. One of Corley's important piece was his autobiographical novel A Chosen World, describing his homosexual experiences as a kid and as a teen in the military. It also describes his job after World War II in Louisiana Department of Transportation Development. What's sad is that because of his sexual identity, after twenty years of working in that department, Corley was fired and denied retirement funds and didn't even get to really secure Social Security benefits. -"The press accounts of queer sexuality ordinarily fell into two categories. First, and most sensational, were hard news stories, usually of political scandal or homicide; as in the 1955 murder of John Murrett. Along with arrests for public sex, ever more common from the mid-1960s, these bits of information would produce a history of criminality, a history of calamity, if relied on exclusively. But second, and more subtle, were representations of representations. That is, in newspaper entertainment sections, feature writers described and critiqued cultural products that often imagines '" on screen, on stage, and in print '" scenario of queer desire otherwise infrequently spoken or discussed. Critical reviews of fiction, film, song, and drama intimated and engaged the queer content of the subject in question. In some cases, journalists evinced a need to smuggle out information not only about particular queer representations, but also about access to other sources about developments in queer cultural production" (220-221) -Gay rights movements during the 1970s: rise of gay rights organizations like Gay and Lesbian Alliance fought against heterosexual oppression through legal actions, educational forums, press, speakers, and monitoring and reporting police's brutal actions against homosexuals. This movement was linked very closely with civil rights activists. -"For African Americans, for example, to participate in gay organizing meant to participate in yet another white-controlled, white-dominated institution. Though homosexuality and gender insubordination clearly weren't just white thing, gay political organizing for the most part was" (239) -"As civil rights activism took Mississippi by storm in the 1960s, police targeted homosexuals in and outside the movement. Queer organizing all but ceased. On occasion a coalition of leftists '" not specifically gay-identified '" protested antihomosexual initiatives, utilizing broader calls for free speech and freedom of expression. Queer writing found outlets in late-sixties left-wing counterculture publications such as the underground newspaper Kudzu, printed in Jackson and distributed on high school and college campuses throughout the state" (232) -Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) & United Metropolitan Community Church (UMCC) vs. the Moral Majority churches. MCC was a church founded for gay Christians and served to gays and lesbians on the basis that God loved them that no matter their sexual lifestyle. The mainstream churches of the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Assembly of God denominations vehemently opposed them and even started a letter campaign against the MCC and gays who considered themselves Christians, writing letters to people to fund them for a media campaign against homosexuals in the state. UMCC had campaigns of their own of course, and one included their documentary People for the American Way, which revealed the brutal tactics the Moral Majority used against homosexual Christians, including their denial of freedom of speech to the gay community and also spying on them and trying to get them in prisons. -"Systematized oppression -- exerted contradictory influences on gays. In repeatedly condemning the phenomenon, antigay polemicists broke the silence that surrounded the topic of homosexuality. Thus the resources available to lesbians and homosexuals for attaching a meaning to otherwise dimly understood feelings expanded noticeably. The attacks on gay men and women hastened the articulation of a homosexual identity and spread the knowledge that they existed in large numbers. Ironically, the effort to root out the homosexuals in American society made it easier for them to find one another" '"John D Emilio (250-251) -"The struggle over a gay church was a struggle over gay existence, over being as defined by a broader culture. Queer Mississippians' spiritual need was a conflicted need for assimilation, no less or more so than the needs of other Mississippians, including members of the religious right" (254) -"Queer Mississippians, as a group, were not atheistic, as Don Sanders of Houston's Gay Atheist's League assumed logical. Instead of discarding their religious upbringings, many were learning to accommodate them to new ways of living '" and also to accommodate their new ways of living to their religious upbringings" (254-255) -"As we see, struggles to (re)define the so-called lower- and upper-most echelons of society in early-eighties Mississippi demonstrate that sex and gender were among the most salient of properties. These properties were grounded in everyday life and discourse and were crystallized in outrageous public scandals" (287) -"to be among the first diagnosed with HIV or AIDS in Mississippi is to be queered" (305)

By Kwonstein (David Uthm Kwon) - The thoughts and tips from an aspiring social worker leading a vegan lifestyle that's dedicated to fighting racial injustice, engaging in deep philosophical inquiry, and reflecting on important entertainment...  

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